Menander I Soter (Ancient Greek: Μένανδρος Σωτήρ, Ménandros Sōtḗr, Menandrauou Sotiros, ‘Menander the Saviour’) (Pali: मिलिन्दो, Milinda), was a Greco-Bactrian and later Indo-Greek King (reigned c.165/155 –130 BC) who administered a large territory in the Northwestern regions of the Indian Subcontinent from his capital at Sagala. Menander is noted for having become a patron and convert to Greco-Buddhism and he is widely regarded as the greatest of the Indo-Greek kings.
Menander might have initially been a king of Bactria. After re-conquering the Punjab he established an empire in the Indian Subcontinent stretching from the Kabul River valley in the west to the Ravi River in the east, and from the Swat River valley in the north to Arachosia (the Helmand Province). Ancient Indian writers indicate that he launched expeditions southward into Rajasthan and as far east down the Ganges River Valley as Pataliputra (Patna), and the GreekgeographerStrabo wrote that he “conquered more tribes than Alexander the Great.”
Large numbers of Menander’s coins have been unearthed, attesting to both the flourishing commerce and longevity of his realm. Menander was also a patron of Buddhism, and his conversations with the Buddhist sage Nagasena are recorded in the important Buddhist work, the Milinda Panha (“The Questions of King Milinda”; panha meaning “question” in Pali). After his death in 130 BC, he was succeeded by his wife Agathokleia, the possible daughter of Agatokles, who ruled as regent for his son Strato I. Buddhist tradition relates that he handed over his kingdom to his son and retired from the world, but Plutarch relates that he died in camp while on a military campaign, and that his remains were divided equally between the cities to be enshrined in monuments, probably stupas, across his realm.
Menander was born into a Greek family in a village called Kalasi adjacent to Alexandria of the Caucasus (present day Bagram, Afghanistan), although another source says he was born near Sagala (modern Sialkot in the Punjab, Pakistan). His territories covered Bactria (modern day ولایت بلخ or Bactria Province) and extended to India (modern day regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Greater Punjab.
His capital is supposed to have been Sagala, a prosperous city in northern Punjab (believed to be modern Sialkot), Pakistan. He was defeated at the banks of river Indus by Agnimitra,son of Pushyamitra Shunga.
The Greeks who caused Bactria to revolt grew so powerful on account of the fertility of the country that they became masters, not only of Ariana, but also of India, as Apollodorus of Artemita says: and more tribes were subdued by them than by Alexander– by Menander in particular (at least if he actually crossed the Hypanis towards the east and advanced as far as the Imaüs), for some were subdued by him personally and others by Demetrius, the son of Euthydemus the king of the Bactrians; and they took possession, not only of Patalena, but also, on the rest of the coast, of what is called the kingdom of Saraostus and Sigerdis. In short, Apollodorus says that Bactriana is the ornament of Ariana as a whole; and, more than that, they extended their empire even as far as the Seres and the Phryni.— Strabo, Geographica
Accounts describe Indo-Greek campaigns to Mathura, Panchala, Saketa, and potentially Pataliputra. The sage Patanjali around 150 BC, describes Menander campaigning as far as Mathura. The Hathigumpha inscription inscribed by Kharavela the King of Kalinga also places the Yavanas, or Indo-Greeks, in Mathura. Kharavela states to have forced the demoralized Yavana army to retreat back to Mathura:
“Then in the eighth year, (Kharavela) with a large army having sacked Goradhagiri causes pressure on Rajagaha (Rajagriha). On account of the loud report of this act of valour, the Yavana (Greek) King [ta] retreated to Mathura having extricated his demoralized army.”— Hathigumpha inscription, lines 7-8, probably in the 1st century BCE-1st century CE. Original text is in Brahmi script.
After having conquered Saketa, the country of the Panchala and the Mathuras, the Yavanas (Greeks), wicked and valiant, will reach Kusumadhvaja. The thick mud-fortifications at Pataliputra being reached, all the provinces will be in disorder, without doubt. Ultimately, a great battle will follow, with tree-like engines (siege engines).— Gargi-Samhita, Yuga Purana, ch. 5
— Strabo, 15.698
The events and results of these campaigns are unknown. Surviving epigraphical inscriptions during this time such as the Hathigumpha inscription states that Kharavela sacked Pataliputra. Furthermore, numismatics from the Mitra dynasty are concurrently placed in Mathura during the time of Menander. Their relationship is unclear, but the Mithra may potentially be vassals.
In the West, Menander seems to have repelled the invasion of the dynasty of Greco-Bactrian usurper Eucratides, and pushed them back as far as the Paropamisadae, thereby consolidating the rule of the Indo-Greek kings in the northwestern part of the Indian Subcontinent.
The Milinda Panha gives some glimpses of his military methods:
– Has it ever happened to you, O king, that rival kings rose up against you as enemies and opponents?
– Yes, certainly.
– Then you set to work, I suppose, to have moats dug, and ramparts thrown up, and watch towers erected, and strongholds built, and stores of food collected?
– Not at all. All that had been prepared beforehand.
– Or you had yourself trained in the management of war elephants, and in horsemanship, and in the use of the war chariot, and in archery and fencing?
– Not at all. I had learnt all that before.
– But why?
– With the object of warding off future danger.— Milinda Panha, Book III, ch. 7
Generous findings of coins testify to the prosperity and extension of his empire: (with finds as far as Britain) the finds of his coins are the most numerous and the most widespread of all the Indo-Greek kings. Precise dates of his reign, as well as his origin, remain elusive however. Guesses among historians have been that Menander was either a nephew or a former general of the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I, but the two kings are now thought to be separated by at least thirty years. Menander’s predecessor in Punjab seems to have been the king Apollodotus I.
Menander’s empire survived him in a fragmented manner until the last Greek king Strato II disappeared around 10 AD.
The 1st-2nd century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea further testifies to the reign of Menander and the influence of the Indo-Greeks in India:
To the present day ancient drachmae are current in Barygaza, coming from this country, bearing inscriptions in Greek letters, and the devices of those who reigned after Alexander, Apollodorus [sic] and Menander.— Periplus, ch. 47.